If “queer” is defined as anything at odds with heteronormative sexual behavior and gender identities, what does “queer art” look like? That’s the question posed by “The Great Refusal: Taking on New Queer Aesthetics” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Sullivan Galleries. SAIC instructor Oliverio Rodriguez, along with 12 students, curated this sprawling, uneven show containing the work of more than 50 contemporary artists who, according to the intro text, “suggest conceptualizations of what queer aesthetics could be.”
Given the unwieldiness of “queer,” these aesthetic conceptualizations are boundless. Some works in the show are clearly rooted in gay male art of the past à la Dom “Etienne” Orejudos, like Frederic Moffet’s engaging video installation The Faithful (2012) and Rob Bondgren’s painting Cruising Poses (2010). Others take a more campy or playful perspective, like David Nasca’s Unlimited Intimacy (2012), a giant leather teddy bear with a sex-doll mouth, or Schuyler White’s installation Revel (2012), featuring hundreds of paper fairies that encircle a closet-like space. Other works more candidly suggest sex: Jeanne Dunning’s photograph Handhole (1996) and sculpture Handhole prototype (2012) explore the solid/void relationships of penetrators and orifices.
These are a few of the more successful pieces in a sea of works that don’t necessarily read as queer. This might be the fault of the show’s confusing four-part framework. The sections’ introductions vary widely in their language and range from the incomprehensible (“Misuse and Dislocation” and “Progressive Rituals”) to the more poetic (“Bad Values” and “Restraint and Indulgence”). Perhaps using four authors for the four wall texts is an exercise in inclusiveness, but the inconsistent writing reflects the general chaos of the show.